‘RoboCop’ redux: Jose Padilha reboots the ’80s sci-fi tale of a cyber-lawman


Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha didn’t walk into his meet-and-greet with MGM expecting to emerge as the director of a rebooted RoboCop, the 1987 Paul Verhoeven hit that spawned an unlikely but lucrative franchise in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In fact, RoboCop wasn’t even one of the films the heads of MGM, president Jonathan Glickman and co-chairman and co-CEO Roger Birnbaum (who later departed the company in 2012), had on the agenda when they welcomed Padhila into their offices for a general meeting to see which in-development projects might be a good fit for the director behind two of Brazil’s biggest box-office hits, the cop thrillers Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within. But as Padhila politely listened to and declined the various films they pitched his way, his eyes drifted up to a framed poster of Verhoeven’s RoboCop—a film he adores—hanging on the wall of the office. Looking back at the executives, he promptly pitched a project of his own: “Why don’t we do RoboCop?”

This wasn’t as spur-of-the-moment of a suggestion as it might sound. Even though he hadn’t specifically met with MGM to sell them on the notion of a RoboCop remake (for one thing, he wasn’t certain that they still had the rights), Padilha already had a mental outline of what a new version of the Verhoeven film might look like. “I had a take on it before that meeting,” the 46-year-old filmmaker says, on the phone while scouting locations for an upcoming day-long shoot that will capture the final pieces he needs to complete the RoboCop remake he pitched to MGM roughly three years ago, which will finally arrive in theatres on Feb. 12, 2014, via Columbia Pictures. At the time, the studio was lukewarm to the idea, having already been through the development mill with a Darren Aronofsky-helmed RoboCop remake that ultimately went nowhere. “They said, ‘RoboCop again? What’s your take?’” Padilha remembers. And so the director spun them the following scenario: “We’re in 2026 or 2030 and the drone issue—using drones for warfare—has escalated. Now, drones are everywhere and they’re automated; they don’t need drone pilots, the drones make the decision whether or not to fire based on software. So, for the first time in history, we have autonomous machines waging war—except in America, because Americans wouldn’t accept a robot pulling the trigger. So they passed a law saying that in order for a law-enforcement entity to enforce life-and-death decisions, it had to consist of conscious human beings who know the value of human lives. Even though Americans are using drones everywhere else in the world, they can’t be used in America itself.”

Against this backdrop, Padhila’s pitch continued, the profit-minded drone manufacturer OmniCorp (a subsidiary of Omni Consumer Products or OCP, the rogue corporation from Verhoeven’s original) and its devious CEO Sellars (played by Michael Keaton) devise a unique end-run around the “no drones on home soil” stipulation. Namely, they’ll find a way to stick a flesh-and-blood man (at least part of one) inside one of their machines, thus claiming that the drone is a conscious human being…or close enough, anyway. They find their unwilling volunteer in the form of Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman, occupying the role originated by Peter Weller), a Detroit cop who is almost killed in an explosion and has his remaining organic parts transferred into a cutting-edge OmniCorp-manufactured cybernetic suit that patrols the Motor City streets as…RoboCop. Unlike his ’80s predecessor, though, this robotic cop is fully aware of his human identity as well as everything he’s lost since forcibly donning the suit, including his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and the ability to do such basic things as feeding himself.

“The thing about this version of RoboCop is that Alex doesn’t become RoboCop in a single leap,” Padilha explains. “He doesn’t die and wakes up as a machine. He is conscious that he’s inside a machine and doesn’t have a body. So how do you deal with that? Do you really want to be a robot and not have sex with your wife or hold your son? At a certain level, the movie poses the question, ‘What does it mean to be a man?’ So it’s not your usual superhero movie: Kids want to be Spider-Man and Iron Man. They don’t want to be RoboCop. Not even Alex wants to be RoboCop! It’s more like Frankenstein than anything else.”

Padilha credits Verhoeven’s film with raising some of the issues he wanted to tackle in the remake, including the man-vs.-machine question and the potential automation of law enforcement in the near future. “The original RoboCop is very courageous and ahead of its time, the way it poses real issues in the context of an action movie. And we kept its satirical element, too. Remember those amazing, ironic corporate ads in the original film? Instead of using ads, we replaced them with the media. Samuel L. Jackson plays an over-the-top right-wing commentator on a Fox News-like network who is in favor of using drones in the U.S. That character captures what’s going on in America right now, with the two political parties having very little common ground and the media reflecting that division.”

On the other hand, the remake’s incorporation of the drone debate is unique to this era and is an issue that Padilha specifically wanted to address. “Whenever you open a newspaper, there's a big article about drones and the Obama government is being criticized about its use of drones over and over again. It's a very sophisticated debate that Americans will have to deal with because of the position the country has in the world and the technological advances of autonomous machines. There are arguments in favor and against, because you can theoretically program a robot with the values of your society and the robot can then reinforce the law without any bias or the possibility of corruption. So that’s an argument in favor of automating war and law enforcement, but there are also plenty against, the main one being that you cannot automate emotions and feelings and those things are needed for real policemen [or soldiers] to make a proper evaluation. Also, liability goes out the window because once a robot pulls the trigger and makes a mistake by killing a kid or something, who is to blame? Is it the robot? How do you punish a robot? Do you punish the guy who made the software or the guy who made the machine? Liability and accountability go out the window.”

Beyond his own interest in the subject, Padilha put drones front and center in RoboCop in the hopes of encouraging a broad American audience to ponder an issue that will continue to loom large in the country’s relationship with the international community for years to come. “Being a foreigner and a foreigner who really loves America, I always see the country’s foreign policy in a different light, because those of us who live outside the U.S. see the interference America does in other countries. If I look at a presidential election in Brazil, there are never any debates about us invading any other country. There's just no conversation about that. But America, because of its position in the world, those issues are always involved. I'm not saying it’s a good or a bad thing—it's just a thing. So I wanted to make a movie that talked about that, a movie that has a basic political debate being pushed and which has a philosophical side to it, because those issues are philosophical. In fact, some of the characters in the movie—like Sellars—are named after famous philosophers.”

Lest you think this version of RoboCop will consist largely of the title character debating philosophy rather than hunting down bad guys, Padilha is quick to add that his movie packs plenty of firepower. “I like to make movies that are entertaining and will reach a broad audience. But I also figure that if I’m going to spend two or three years of my life doing something, which is how long a movie this big takes these days, I want to make something that’s meaningful. Both of the Elite Squad films are very political, but they were also blockbusters in Brazil, so we wrote a screenplay for RoboCop that tries to do the same thing: Be a very popular movie that at the same time explores issues we care about.”

Fans of the rugged, kinetic action sequences in the Elite Squad films will likely recognize Padilha’s touch in RoboCop’s set-pieces, as the director says that he tried to retain some of that handheld documentary feel (inherited from his time working in the nonfiction realm, where he helmed such features as 2002’s acclaimed Bus 174), even with the new addition of elaborate special effects. “The visual effects were new for me, but to tell you the truth, I shot it [the way I wanted] and then gave the problem to the visual effects department to solve. And they did! I didn't do exactly the Elite Squad thing, because this is a different movie so I made some adaptations, but I remained true to the way I like shooting those kinds of scenes.”

RoboCop does differ from the Elite Squad movies in at least one key respect: Compared to their jaded presentation of a law-enforcement system riddled with corruption and abuses of power, RoboCop’s depiction of an embattled police department sounds positively sunny—even if it takes place in a dystopic version of near-future America. According to Padilha, that’s reflective of a fundamental difference between Brazilian and American methods of policing. “Let me put it this way: Every year in Rio de Janeiro, about 1,000 people are killed by the police. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the police kill about 200 people. I’m not saying the American police are perfect, but compared to Brazil, it’s so much better. We are corrupt, we are violent and we use torture over and over again. It’s unbelievable what happens in Rio. There’s a tradition of American movies about vigilantes—we don’t have that in Brazil, because I don’t see what a vigilante could do in Brazil that would make him more violent than the police! It just wouldn’t make any sense.”

Along with the bigger budgets and new technological toys that are part of joining the Hollywood blockbuster enterprise, Padilha has also had to adapt to the intense scrutiny that accompanies remaking a much-loved hit. The new RoboCop has been a regular topic of Internet movie board conversation since the project was first announced, and the (mostly negative) comments reached a crescendo when photos of the new suit—an all-black affair instead of the well-known silver ensemble that adorned the poster for the ’87 film—circulated online. Although Padilha says he doesn’t pay much attention to the chattering Web classes, he does hope that the skeptics withhold their judgments until February. “It’s hard for anyone outside a movie to judge what that that movie is. A director creates a certain universe and story and character, which have to be internally coherent and have their own dramatic reality inside the story. There’s been a lot of talk about the black suit, but that’s talk from people who haven’t seen the movie. Once they see it, they’ll see that the black suit isn’t exactly what they think it is—there’s more than one suit in the movie. Having said that, I think it’s fun that people are scrutinizing the movie, because it generates interest and once they see it, they can have an informed opinion about it and say what they really think. I just try to make the best movie I can for myself and put it out there. Once it’s out there, it has a life of its own and people are entitled to think whatever they want.”

As he prepares to put the finishing touches on RoboCop, Padilha is already planning a pair of follow-up projects that could keep him ensconced in the American studio system for some time. The first is Brotherhood, a true-crime movie he’s developing with Warner Bros., and the other is Tri-Border, an original screenplay he’s pitching to various studios about a DEA agent who journeys to the titular crime-ridden South American region where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay bump up against each other.

One thing that’s not on his immediate radar is a second RoboCop 2 (Irvin Kershner directed the original—and widely lambasted—sequel in 1990), though he doesn’t rule that option out. “I made a closed movie—I shot RoboCop,” he says. “It’s its own thing, but you can do a sequel to it, no doubt about that. You can do a sequel to anything!” Sounds like he’s already learned one of the most important rules about making movies in Hollywood.